By Senior Analyst, Brian Fleming
Rising above all of the noise of today’s “techapolooza” sweeping across higher education, adaptive learning technology stands out above all of the rest. Adaptive learning is a uniquely innovative, albeit expensive, way to address the problems of costs, retention, and student success, especially in remedial education where this technology promises to be most useful. When asked, however, we find many higher education leaders, especially those in institutions that would be best served by this technology, pause when asked what exactly adaptive learning is, who is using it, with what success, and at what risk.
To help frame this conversation at your institution, we offer the following insights to help inform your adaptive learning strategy.
What is Adaptive Learning?
To be clear, when we say “adaptive learning” we are referring to it as both a concept and a tool. And while the concept is as old as education itself, the technology is quite novel.
- Personalized Learning. Personalization in teaching and learning happens best when content delivery, assessment, and mastery are “adapted” to meet students’ unique needs and abilities. Educators, of course, have been doing this for centuries. What is new about this practice today, however, is simply the use of technology, which comes in the form of heavily automated digital learning platforms driven by predictive modeling, learning analytics, and the latest research in brain science, cognition, and pedagogy. This technology can be used in any discipline, though it is most common in math and science courses and primarily as a tool to enhance student success in online and remedial education, where the need for personalization has historically been most urgent.
- Automated Teaching. Adaptive technology, while dependent on at least some engagement with a live faculty member, replaces (some argue, “disrupts”) the traditional classroom model with automated and more scalable formats less dependent on in-person instruction. Important to note, of course, is that in-person instruction does not fall out of the picture in most cases; in fact, it many strengthen instruction as faculty take on a more supporting, coaching role, with less time devoted to delivery of content, which students may or may not already have mastered, and more time focused on one-to-one student engagement and self-paced guidance through a curriculum. In this way, unlike prior innovations in higher education, technology does not necessarily replicate face-to-face learning (as with online learning), but rather, drives learning from start to finish by incorporating the right mix of online and face-to-face instruction where suitable.
- Addressing Higher Ed’s Greatest Pain Points. Proponents are quick to claim that adaptive learning can break the “iron triangle” of cost, access, and quality, by substituting technology for labor and conversely allowing best in class pedagogy and analytics to improve the quality of education. Some of this may be overstated and overblown, as the up-front investment for adaptive technology is still beyond what most institutions can afford, especially given the long term payoff is still largely unproven. With that said, however, adaptive does promise to significantly innovate teaching and learning in remarkable ways, and may indeed prove to be the next generation solution many institutions would benefit greatly from adopting.
Who is Doing It Well?
A useful example of adaptive learning in action is the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon (or, OLI). Funded by a Hewlett Foundation grant, OLI builds online courses based on best-in-class learning science and technology with the expressed purpose of linking learning experiences to course performance and outcomes in more quantifiable ways. A 2008 study published by the Journal of Interactive Media in Higher education found no significant difference in exam scores for students enrolled in Open Learning Initiative’s introductory statistics course (which contains adaptive learning) compared to the traditional course. Furthermore, the study also found that the OLI students took 50% less time to learn all of the content and perform the same or better relative to the traditional students.  The caveat, however, is this course was all done by one of the world’s top research universities and under circumstances that may not resemble those of mainstream adopters. But, data does continue to emerge show comparable “successes” at other institutions, often making a compelling case for the linkage between adaptive learning and student success.
Adaptive is also well on the radar of foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), usually a good sign, which commissioned the “Adaptive Learning Market Acceleration Program” to provide ten $100,000 grants to accelerate the implementation in higher education. BMGF convened the “Personalized Learning Network,” which brought together institutions to discuss the potential of adaptive learning, including American Public University, Arizona State, Capella, Kaplan, Southern New Hampshire, and Western Governors. These institutions represent some of the most innovative models to watch in today’s higher education market already, and their early enthusiasm for this technology certainly signals future adoption among similar institutions, especially adult serving institutions operating in the remedial market and with active programming online.
Is investment in this technology worth it?
This depends on everything from your strategy and mission to your bottom-line. Some thoughts…
- Focus on a distinct priority that adaptive can help address. In thinking about adopting adaptive technology, we suggest first focusing on where this technology might be most useful, which is often in remedial education. You should assess the number of remedial students served yearly, the successes of existing initiatives, the unique challenges faced by the many types of students that can fall within this population, and how successful your institutions is on the whole in serving these students.
- Talk to your faculty. As with any tech adoption, faculty enthusiasm is critical to gauge, especially given the disruptive nature of this particularly kind of technology. While a recent Gallup survey, “Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology,” found that 61% believe adaptive learning has “great potential to make a positive impact on higher education,” we wonder whether some confusion persists about the role of this technology and how drastically it may impact traditional instruction.
- Initiate a readiness assessment. Your technology budgets and overall infrastructure are critical to assess in determining whether your institution is ready for this kind of technology, keeping in mind that implementation can be costly and hard to maintain over time and is often difficult without the proper diagnostics to guide the process. Working with third party providers is commonplace, and requires careful planning in the earliest stages of adoption not just in selecting a provider and managing this relation over time, but in determining how ready your institutions is for the influence and impact of outside parties. Keep in mind that any tech tool that is not as easily managed in-house will continue to blur the lines between nonprofit and for-profit, which may attract the attention of faculty and accreditors.
If adaptive learning is on your radar, you should plan today for success with tomorrow’s technology. You do not want to be left behind what could be the most ground-breaking tech innovation to ever take root in higher education, but you also do not want to approach this kind of change without a strategy for success.